|The Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and
Mail Company: Traversing the Red
Let's Get Bigger!
Thomas Jefferson once opined that the "United States was big enough" - meaning, he didn't see the need to extend beyond the Mississippi
River or into Canada or even Spanish Texas, despite what congressional expansionists believed. Then, in 1803, a real estate deal with
France fell into the country's collective lap. With one stroke of a quill, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States, and
expansion fever went from dream to reality. In 1848, the United States' defeat of Mexico in the Mexican American War (1846-1848) brought
the American myth of "manifest destiny" into fruition: the Mexican Cession extended the United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Time
to start moving, right?
How to Move?
The problem with people moving from one coast to the other was many-fold. One, there were people who already occupied the lands, and
they were none to keen to have pioneers establish homesteads on their hunting and trading territories. Two, the expeditions that the
Louisiana Purchase solicited - like the Freeman & Custis, Lewis & Clark, and Zebulon Pike expeditions - had demonstrated that no rivers
east of the Rocky Mountains extended past the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, a fact that Randolph B. Marcy's exploration of the
Red and Canadian rivers in 1852 steadfastly confirmed. Three, railroading was still in its infancy. Building tracks and purchasing locomotives
proved very expensive, and most investors lost rather than gained money. This mode of transport would be the solution in the future, but
that future was still decades away.
Jefferson Davis, who served as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce from 1853-1857, ordered a number of surveys to be
done for possible transcontinental railroad routes. Not surprisingly, the man who would become the President of the Confederacy
(1862-1865) wanted the route to traverse slave states and potential slave states (New Mexico Territory), not free states. To that effect, in
1854 Ambassador James A. Gasdsen agreed upon purchasing additional land from Mexico in preparation for the southern route. Again not
unsurprisingly, when the Pacific Railway Act was signed in 1862, the U.S. Congress ensured that the first transcontinental route only crossed
free territories, as per the plan of free-soiler Stephen A. Douglass.
|The first trans-continental transportation in the American Southwest
was not a railroad but a stage coach, and it traveled right through the heart of the Red River Valley.
|In 1957, the state of Oklahoma celebrated both the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and the golden anniversary of its statehood. (OHS)
|A portion of an 1854 map shows the "route to be examined" for a potential transcontinental railroad through southwestern Arkansas. The
Butterfield stagecoach ended up not go through this portion of Arkansas, however. (LOC)
John Warren Butterfield, a stagecoach driver from New York, had been an early investor in stagecoaches and mail delivery contracts. He
was one of the original investors in American Express. However, he hesitated to invest in a northern transcontinental stagecoach and mail
line with fellow entrepreneur William Fargo, who along with Henry Wells founded the Wells Fargo express and banking services. Not to be
outdone in the transcontinental business, Butterfield won the southwestern mail contract in 1857. Since the mail brought a lot of money, its
postage was also used to subsidize passenger service along the route, and within a few months, a mail and passenger route was
established that ferried letters and people from St. Louis, Missouri all the way to San Francisco, California.
Taking a Ride
The scheduled trip from east to west was supposed to be completed in 25 days. Passengers shelled out a lot of money for the trip - a full
length journey would have cost $200, or over $4,000 according to today's inflation rate. Horses and drivers were exchanged along the route.
The schedule was grueling, and it was mostly mind-numbing. Depending on the terrain, the horses (sometimes, mules had to suffice) pulled
at about six miles per hour, and there was nothing to do for vast stretches of time. Excitement occurred when the coach got stuck in the
mud and the passengers had to free it, or when Comanches or Apaches were spotted along the route. Getting into a town or fort, regardless
how small or sparse, was always a welcome relief. Crossing the rivers proved to be the scariest of all activities, and the reason why the
stagecoach crossed the larger rivers on ferry boats if it could find one. Most passengers only completed portions of the trip; only one wrote
about a complete transcontinental journey. Colorfully named Waterman Lily Ormsby, a prominent engraver, journaled his tour for his
newspaper, the New York Herald. He actually shared a portion of the journey with John Butterfield himself as well as with Butterfield's son,
Junior, who was the line's first stagecoach driver. His description of the trek at Pecos, Texas best explains the Butterfield experience,
"thumping and bumping at such a rate which threatened not to leave a whole bone in my body."
Rivals and Arrivals
Unfortunately, the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and Mail Company only lasted from 1857 to 1861. During this brief time, however, the
Butterfield became legendary. Towns clamored to welcome the Butterfield. Sherman, Texas for example, paid the stage's passage on
Colbert's Ferry across the Red River to ensure that rival Preston, Texas would not be chosen as the point of entry for Texas. While the
towns welcomed the potential for commerce, the route actually varied depending on weather, safety reports, and river crossings -
especially south of the Red River, where the waters were often described as "shifty." Therefore, the stage route changed its course, and
multiple towns could lay occasional claims as stage stops. The Butterfield counted nine divisions in its 2,795 mile journey. Oddly, the
company counted the divisions from San Francisco westward instead of the St. Louis origination point. It traversed the Red River between
Divisions 6 (Fort Chadborne to Colbert's Ferry) and 7 (Colbert's Ferry to Fort Smith). Let's take a look at some of the stations along this way.
- Walker's Station at Skullyville aka Choctaw Agency, LeFlore County. Named after the Choctaw governor Tandy Walker.
- Edward's Station near Hughes, LeFlore County. Also called Trahern's Station.
- Holloway's Station near Red Oak, Latimer County. Norris Road follows the exact stage route.
- Riddle's Station near Lutie, Latimer County.
- Pusley's Station near Higgins, Latimer County.
- Blackburn's Station at Elm Creek near Pittsburg, Pittsburg County.
- Waddell's Station on Wesley Road at McGee Creek in Atoka County.
- Geary's Station near Atoka, Atoka County. Lucy Geary and her husband operated a toll gate at this station. It's now under Lake Atoka.
- Boggy Depot in Atoka County. The stage coach route is still visible here.
- Nail's Station at the Blue River crossing near Caddo in Bryan County. It's located on Nail's Crossing Road.
- Fisher's Station near Durant in Bryan County. Depressions are still visible in the soil at
- Colbert's Ferry inside the Chickasaw Nation at the Red River in Bryan County. Benjamin Colbert had a hotel here and later operated a
toll bridge here, too. The crossing is no longer accessible.
|An 1858 schedule showed the times and places where the Butterfield stopped. Check out the fine print! (CA State Parks)
|An 1858 map of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and Mail Company route. (LOC)
|This photo, taken in 1922, depicts the oldest house built in Bryan County. It was located at Nail's Station. (OHS)
|The Nails lived in this home, where they operated a store and stagecoach stop. The home is now gone, though the family still lives near. (OHS)
|The Butterfield followed the Military Road into Boggy Depot. The route can still be discerned.
|Fisher's Station near Durant was re-created for Oklahoma's golden anniversary in 1957. (OHS)
|Travelers could be fed and housed at Colbert's ferry crossing before entering Texas. (OHS)
|The old stagecoach road at Nail's crossing also served gold seekers during the late 1840's gold rush.
|Traveling History: Stations in Old Indian Territory
|This 1866 map of the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory shows the Butterfield route, with stations listed (I put them in red circles). Not all
stations are listed, and some of the names are not what we call them today - Fisher's, for example, is named "Carriage Point." (LOC)
|Traveling History: Stations in North Texas
- Sherman: the county seat of Grayson welcomed the Butterfield with great fanfare. Shermanites even paid for new bridges to be
constructed, and the station was one of the best outfitted for the journey. The station was located at the southeastern corner of the
square (Glen Sample Ely). The Butterfield traveled west on today's TX 56, aka the California Road aka Marcy's Road.
- Diamond's Station: The station outfitted the coach with mules. It sat just to the west of today's Whitesboro, Grayson County, on TX 56.
- Gainesville: the station in the county seat of Cooke was located at either at 101 California Street (northeast corner of downtown
square) (A.C. Greene) or at the corner of Rusk & California Streets (Glen Sample Ely).
- Davidson's Station on Williams Creek just northeast of Rosston in Cooke County.
- Connelly's Station sat just barely southeast of Sunset and northeast of Alvord near Big Sandy Creek in Montague County.
- Earhart's Station west of Chico, Wise County
Alternate route (during turns of weather, troubles with natives, sectional violence. Used mostly in 1861)
- Denton, Denton County
- Decatur, Wise County
- Bridgeport, Wise County
- Jacksboro Station in Jack County at Lost Creek
- Murphy's Station, aka Rock Station, in Young County
- Fort Belknap in Young County was a major stop for the Butterfield. The period of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and Mail route
coincided with the Comanche and Brazos Indian Reservations, which were all within a short distance of Fort Belknap. This was mean
country, where whites, like John R. Baylor, saw Indians - regardless if they were peaceful or warful - as despised "savages." After a
series of battles in 1858-1859, the state of Texas dicontinued the reservations and forced all native Americans living in Texas to
relocate to Indian Territory.
|A map from 1957 details the original route of the Butterfield stagecoach from Sherman westward (Abilene Central Library).
|A second portion of the 1957 map details the journey through Wise, Jack, and Young counties (Abilene Central Library).
|Earhart's Station, west of Chico, showed signs of a lot of transportation history as this 1930's photograph from the Texas Department of
Transportation attests. #1 denotes the remains of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach road; #2 is the old river crossing; #3 is a wooden bridge
abutment; and #4 is the new highway bridge. The source says it's SH 39. I have not seen references to SH 39, but I think it might be today's TX
101. (Texas State Archives)
|The original stage road is now a bike trail along Lost Creek on the southeastern side of Jacksboro.
|Local historian Jack Loftin carved this informative rock to commemorate Rock Station aka Murphy's Station.
|Fort Belknap's armory was a sore sight in the 1930s before local historian took on the massive challenge of restoration work. (LOC)
|The spiraling sectional differences between the North and the South put the brakes on the
transcontinental railroad... but what about the mail and commerce that needed a reliable link from east
to west, regardless of political and moral differences?
|Retracing the Butterfiled isn't easy, but I'll be doing this periodically as time permits... and sharing my
discoveries with you! In the meantime, if you spot an error or know of a place along the Butterfield to
explore, send me a message: email@example.com
Waterman Lily Ormsby, "The Butterfield Overland Mail: Only through Passenger on the First Westbound Stage" (1858)
A.C. Greene, "900 Miles on the Butterfield Trail" (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994)
Glen Sample Ely, "The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861" (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)
Texashistory.com by Glen Sample Ely
Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center